Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved.
—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar
It is easy to find fault, if one has that disposition. There was once a man who, not being able to find any other fault with his coal, complained that there were too many prehistoric toads in it.
—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar
“I’ve knelt to a nigger wench!” he muttered. “I thought I had struck the deepest depths of degradation before, but oh, dear, it was nothing to this. . . . Well, there is one consolation, such as it is—I’ve struck bottom this time; there’s nothing lower.”
But that was a hasty conclusion.
At ten that night he climbed the ladder in the haunted house, pale, weak, and wretched. Roxy was standing in the door of one of the rooms, waiting, for she had heard him.
This was a two-story log house which had acquired the reputation a few years ago of being haunted, and that was the end of its usefulness. Nobody would live in it afterward, or go near it by night, and most people even gave it a wide berth in the daytime. As it had no competition, it was called the haunted house. It was getting crazy and ruinous now, from long neglect. It stood three hundred yards beyond Pudd’nhead Wilson’s house, with nothing between but vacancy. It was the last house in the town at that end.
Tom followed Roxy into the room. She had a pile of clean straw in the corner for a bed, some cheap but well-kept clothing was hanging on the wall, there was a tin lantern freckling the floor with little spots of light, and there were various soap and candle boxes scattered about, which served for chairs. The two sat down. Roxy said:
“Now den, I’ll tell you straight off, en I’ll begin to k’leck de money later on; I ain’t in no hurry. What does you reckon I’s gwine to tell you?”
“Well, you—you—oh, Roxy, don’t make it too hard for me! Come right out and tell me you’ve found out somehow what a shape I’m in on account of dissipation and foolishness.”
“Disposition en foolishness! No sir, dat ain’t it. Dat jist ain’t nothin’ at all, ’longside o’ what I knows.”
Tom stared at her, and said:
“Why, Roxy, what do you mean?”
She rose, and gloomed above him like a Fate.
“I means dis—en it’s de Lord’s truth. You ain’t no more kin to ole Marse Driscoll den I is! dat’s what I means!” and her eyes flamed with triumph.
“Yassir, en dat ain’t all! You’s a nigger!—bawn a nigger and a slave!—en you’s a nigger en a slave dis minute; en if I opens my mouf ole Marse Driscoll’ll sell you down de river befo’ you is two days older den what you is now!”
“It’s a thundering lie, you miserable old blatherskite!”
“It ain’t no lie, nuther. It’s just de truth, en nothin’ but de truth, so he’p me. Yassir—you’s my son—”
“En dat po’ boy dat you’s be’n a-kickin’ en a-cuffin’ today is Percy Driscoll’s son en yo’ marster—”
“En his name is Tom Driscoll, en yo’s name’s Valet de Chambers, en you ain’t got no fambly name, beca’se niggers don’t have em!”
Tom sprang up and seized a billet of wood and raised it, but his mother only laughed at him, and said:
“Set down, you pup! Does you think you kin skyer me? It ain’t in you, nor de likes of you. I reckon you’d shoot me in de back, maybe, if you got a chance, for dat’s jist yo’ style—I knows you, throo en throo—but I don’t mind gitt’n killed, beca’se all dis is down in writin’ and it’s in safe hands, too, en de man dat’s got it knows whah to look for de right man when I gits killed. Oh, bless yo’ soul, if you puts yo’ mother up for as big a fool as you is, you’s pow’ful mistaken, I kin tell you! Now den, you set still en behave yo’self; en don’t you git up ag’in till I tell you!”
Tom fretted and chafed awhile in a whirlwind of disorganizing sensations and emotions, and finally said, with something like settled conviction:
“The whole thing is moonshine; now then, go ahead and do your worst; I’m done with you.”
Roxy made no answer. She took the lantern and started for the door. Tom was in a cold panic in a moment.
“Come back, come back!” he wailed. “I didn’t mean it, Roxy; I take it all back, and I’ll never say it again! Please come back, Roxy!”
The woman stood a moment, then she said gravely:
“Dat’s one thing you’s got to stop, Valet de Chambers. You can’t call me Roxy, same as if you was my equal. Chillen don’t speak to dey mammies like dat. You’ll call me ma or mammy, dat’s what you’ll call me—leastways when de ain’t nobody aroun’. Say it!”
It cost Tom a struggle, but he got it out.
“Dat’s all right, don’t you ever forgit it ag’in, if you knows what’s good for you. Now den, you had said you wouldn’t ever call it lies en moonshine ag’in. I’ll tell you dis, for a warnin’: if you ever does say it ag’in, it’s de las’ time you’ll ever say it to me; I’ll tramp as straight to de judge as I kin walk, en tell him who you is, en prove it. Does you b’lieve me when I says dat?”
“Oh,” groaned Tom, “I more than believe it; I know it.”
Roxy knew her conquest was complete. She could have proved nothing to anybody, and her threat of writings was a lie; but she knew the person she was dealing with, and had made both statements without any doubt as to the effect they would produce.
She went and sat down on her candle box, and the pride and pomp of her victorious attitude made it a throne. She said:
“Now den, Chambers, we’s gwine to talk business, en dey ain’t gwine to be no mo’ foolishness. In de fust place, you gits fifty dollahs a month; you’s gwine to han’ over half of it to yo’ ma. Plank it out!”
But Tom had only six dollars in the world. He gave her that, and promised to start fair on next month’s pension.
“Chambers, how much is you in debt?”
Tom shuddered, and said:
“Nearly three hundred dollars.”
“How is you gwine to pay it?”
Tom groaned out: “Oh, I don’t know; don’t ask me such awful questions.”
But she stuck to her point until she wearied a confession out of him: he had been prowling about in disguise, stealing small valuables from private houses; in fact, he made a good deal of a raid on his fellow villagers a fortnight before, when he was supposed to be in St. Louis; but he doubted if he had sent away enough stuff to realize the required amount, and was afraid to make a further venture in the present excited state of the town. His mother approved of his conduct, and offered to help, but this frightened him. He tremblingly ventured to say that if she would retire from the town he should feel better and safer, and could hold his head higher—and was going on to make an argument, but she interrupted and surprised him pleasantly by saying she was ready; it didn’t make any difference to her where she stayed, so that she got her share of the pension regularly. She said she would not go far, and would call at the haunted house once a month for her money. Then she said:
“I don’t hate you so much now, but I’ve hated you a many a year—and anybody would. Didn’t I change you off, en give you a good fambly en a good name, en made you a white gen’l’man en rich, wid store clothes on—en what did I git for it? You despised me all de time, en was al’ays sayin’ mean hard things to me befo’ folks, en wouldn’t ever let me forgit I’s a nigger—en—en—”
She fell to sobbing, and broke down. Tom said: “But you know I didn’t know you were my mother; and besides—”
“Well, nemmine ’bout dat, now; let it go. I’s gwine to fo’git it.” Then she added fiercely, “En don’t ever make me remember it ag’in, or you’ll be sorry, I tell you.”
When they were parting, Tom said, in the most persuasive way he could command:
“Ma, would you mind telling me who was my father?”
He had supposed he was asking an embarrassing question. He was mistaken. Roxy drew herself up with a proud toss of her head, and said:
“Does I mine tellin’ you? No, dat I don’t! You ain’t got no ’casion to be shame’ o’ yo’ father, I kin tell you. He wuz de highest quality in dis whole town—ole Virginny stock. Fust famblies, he wuz. Jes as good stock as de Driscolls en de Howards, de bes’ day dey ever seed.” She put on a little prouder air, if possible, and added impressively: “Does you ’member Cunnel Cecil Burleigh Essex, dat died de same year yo’ young Marse Tom Driscoll’s pappy died, en all de Masons en Odd Fellers en Churches turned out en give him de bigges’ funeral dis town ever seed? Dat’s de man.”
Under the inspiration of her soaring complacency the departed graces of her earlier days returned to her, and her bearing took to itself a dignity and state that might have passed for queenly if her surroundings had been a little more in keeping with it.
“Dey ain’t another nigger in dis town dat’s as highbawn as you is. Now den, go ’long! En jes you hold yo’ head up as high as you want to—you has de right, en dat I kin swah.”